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How & Why Do Leaves Change Color?

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Despite their astonishing record of losses when dealing with lumberjacks and beavers, trees are pretty tough customers. Their trunks, branches, roots and twigs are all more than capable of enduring a winter's worth of freezing temperatures, snow, sleet and hail. Their leaves, though? Eh, not so tough. The broad, thin leaves of a broadleaf tree (like a maple, an oak, a birch, or a poplar) are an Achilles' heel when winter comes, and are vulnerable to freezing and damage from the elements. In order to survive, the trees either have to somehow protect the delicate leaves or shed them.

Evergreen trees—your pines, spruces, firs, etc.— went the protection route. Their leaves, or needles, are covered in a waxy coating to resist freezing, allowing them to live for years or even decades before falling off and being replaced. The leaves of deciduous trees, on the other hand, are cast off with the arrival of winter. The chemical processes that prepare them for their send-off also treat us to the season's vibrant colors.

Color Coding

Green: The green color of leaves throughout spring and summer comes from chlorophyll, a pigment vital to photosynthesis.

As we get closer to autumn and some parts of the planet get fewer hours of sunlight, trees respond by stopping the food-making photosynthesis process and slowing the production of chlorophyll until, eventually, they stop producing it altogether and the green color of the leaf fades

leaves-mapleYellow and Orange: Along with chlorophyll, there are yellow and orange pigments, carotene and xanthophyll, inside some trees' leaves. For most of the year, these pigments are masked by chlorophyll, but as the chlorophyll breaks down and the green color dissipates, the yellow to orange colors become visible.

Red: Another class of pigment that occurs in leaves is the anthocyanins. Anthocyanins, unlike carotene and xanthophyll, are not present in leaves year-round. It isn't until the chlorophyll begins breaking down that the plant begins to synthesize anthocyanin. Why do trees begin producing a different pigment in leaves they're getting ready to lose? The prevailing theory is that anthocyanins protect leaves from sun damage, lower their freezing point, allow them to remain on the tree longer, and buy the tree more time to recover nutrients from its leaves. The colors that anthocyanins produce are dependent on the pH of the leaves' cell sap. Very acidic sap results in a bright red color, while less acidic sap leads to a purplish red.

Brown: The humdrum color is the result of waste products trapped in the leaves.

That covers the basics of how each of the colors can be produced. But which color we ultimately see depends on several factors, such as"¦

Species: Certain colors are characteristic of particular tree species and can be used to help identify the type of tree you're looking at. Oak leaves turn red, brown, or russet, hickories turn golden bronze, poplars turn golden yellow, dogwoods turn a purplish red, beeches turn a light yellow/tan, birches turn bright yellow, sugar maples turn orange-red, black maples turn a glowing yellow, and red maples turn scarlet. Some trees, notably elms, don't go through much color change at all; there's just a dull brown and then the leaf is gone with the wind.

Weather: The temperature and moisture levels a tree is exposed to before and during the time its leaves' chlorophyll breaks down can affect color. Sunny days and cool nights favor anthocyanin production and bright red leaves. On cloudy days, anthocyanin isn't as chemically active and allows the orange or yellow pigments to take center stage.

Geography: Autumn leaves in Europe tend to be mostly yellow, but the US and East Asia seem to favor red leaves. Scientists from Israel and Finland recently put forth a theory about this color difference in the journal New Phytologist1. The scientists think that some 35 million years ago—amid a series of ice ages—many tree species evolved to become deciduous and produced red leaves to ward off insects. In North America and Asia, north-to-south mountain chains enabled the north and south spread of plants and animals corresponding with the advance and retreat of ice. In Europe, east-to-west mountain ranges like the Alps trapped plant and animal life. Many tree species (and the insects that depended on them) died out when the ice advanced. At the end of repeated ice ages, say the scientists, the tree species that survived didn't need red leaves to cope with the insects that were left, so they stopped producing red pigments and stuck with yellow.

The Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground

leaves-ground

While all this color changing and autumn magic is going on, the tree is preparing to cast off its leaves. Around the same time that chlorophyll production slows down, the veins that transport nutrients and water to the leaf from the rest of the tree get closed off. A layer of cells at the base of the leaf stem, called the separation layer, swells and forms a cork-like material, gradually severing the tissue that connects the leaf to the branch. The leaf falls off and the tree seals the cut—so when the leaf is blown off or falls from its own weight, a leaf scar is left behind.

1Lev-Yadun, S and Holopainen, J. (2009). Why red-dominated autumn leaves in America and yellow-dominated autumn leaves in Northern Europe? New Phytologist Volume 183(3): 506-512. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.02904.x
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Special thanks to Damian Dockery, who provided the foliage photos. See more of his work at flickr.com/damiand23.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Dive With Sharks But Not Crocodiles?
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Why do we dive with sharks but not crocodiles?

Eli Rosenberg:

The issue is the assumption that sharks' instincts are stronger and more basic.

There are a couple of reasons swimming with sharks is safer:

1. Most sharks do not like the way people taste. They expect their prey to taste a certain way, like fish/seal, and we do not taste like that. Sharks also do not like the sensation of eating people. Bigger sharks like great whites enjoy prey with a high fat-bone ratio like seals. Smaller sharks enjoy eating fish, which they can gobble in one bite. So, while they might bite us, they pretty quickly decide “That’s not for me” and swim away. There is only one shark that doesn’t really care about humans tasting icky: that shark is our good friend the tiger shark. He is one of the most dangerous species because of his nondiscriminatory taste (he’s called the garbage can of the sea)!

2. Sharks are not animals that enjoy a fight. Our big friend the great white enjoys ambushing seals. This sneak attack is why it sometimes mistakes people for seals or sea turtles. Sharks do not need to fight for food. The vast majority of sharks species are not territorial (some are, like the blacktip and bull). The ones that are territorial tend to be the more aggressive species that are more dangerous to dive with.

3. Sharks attacked about 81 people in 2016, according to the University of Florida. Only four were fatal. Most were surfers.

4. Meanwhile, this is the saltwater crocodile. The saltwater crocodile is not a big, fishy friend, like the shark. He is an opportunistic, aggressive, giant beast.


5. Crocodiles attack hundreds to thousands of people every single year. Depending on the species, one-third to one-half are fatal. You have a better chance of survival if you played Russian roulette.

6. The Death Roll. When a crocodile wants to kill something big, the crocodile grabs it and rolls. This drowns and disorients the victim (you). Here is a PG video of the death roll. (There is also a video on YouTube in which a man stuck his arm into an alligator’s mouth and he death rolled. You don’t want to see what happened.)

7. Remember how the shark doesn’t want to eat you or fight you? This primordial beast will eat you and enjoy it. There is a crocodile dubbed Gustave, who has allegedly killed around 300 people. (I personally believe 300 is a hyped number and the true number might be around 100, but yikes, that’s a lot). Gustave has reportedly killed people for funsies. He’s killed them and gone back to his business. So maybe they won’t even eat you.


8. Sharks are mostly predictable. Crocodiles are completely unpredictable.

9. Are you in the water or by the edge of the water? You are fair game to a crocodile.

10. Crocodiles have been known to hang out together. The friend group that murders together eats together. Basks of crocodiles have even murdered hippopotamuses, the murder river horse. Do you think you don't look like an appetizer?

11. Wow, look at this. This blacktip swims among the beautiful coral, surrounded by crystal clear waters and staggering biodiversity. I want to swim there!

Oh wow, such mud. I can’t say I feel the urge to take a dip. (Thanks to all who pointed this out!)

12. This is not swimming with the crocodiles. More like a 3D aquarium.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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